Power cripples your brain

The old saying that power corrupts has been verified by science. Not only that, it does your head in, as it were, cripples your brain and cuts you off from reality. Jerry Useem tells the story in Power Causes Brain Damage.

Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, conducted years of lab and field experiments.

    Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, found that power impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” which may be a cornerstone of empathy.

We tend to mimic other people when we are with them, which lights up sympathetic circuits that trigger the same feelings others are experiencing, thus providing a window into where they are coming from.

    Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”

While it seems the mirroring response is anaesthetised rather than broken after long habituation, changing the pattern can be difficult if not impossible. Obhi ran a study where:

    subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.

I have read elsewhere that people who get Botox to take the wrinkles out of their face become emotionally isolated and effectively disabled.

Perhaps an early salutary lesson may help, as in this case:

    PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi sometimes tells the story of the day she got the news of her appointment to the company’s board, in 2001. She arrived home percolating in her own sense of importance and vitality, when her mother asked whether, before she delivered her “great news,” she would go out and get some milk. Fuming, Nooyi went out and got it. “Leave that damn crown in the garage” was her mother’s advice when she returned.

    The point of the story, really, is that Nooyi tells it. It serves as a useful reminder about ordinary obligation and the need to stay grounded. Nooyi’s mother, in the story, serves as a “toe holder,” a term once used by the political adviser Louis Howe to describe his relationship with the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling Franklin.

I have been told recently that professional people, lawyers and such, who don’t work in a hierarchical structure become used to getting their own way. My own belief is that if we have unequal power over others we are in a position of moral hazard.

Statistics were not given in the article, except where:

    participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point. Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else…

I think I could have failed that one.

No-one is suggesting that all people who have power suffer adverse effects on their brain. There will be exceptions, and I know that some companies have programs that are meant to keep their executives in touch with the real world of their customers, and some go beyond that by paying their employees to do charity work. Nevertheless the research says we have a problem, and the end of the article suggests that businesses “had shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools were not much better.”

Research in psychology keeps telling us that the brain is malleable, and both culture and social environment have much to do with how our brains develop. Patterns that solidify over several decades, however, I think are unlikely to shift without some kind of deeply existential experience.

Where existing institutions within society are failing the normal suggestion is that the state should intervene. I think there are no easy answers.

See also:

Compassion, empathy, feelings, emotion

23 thoughts on “Power cripples your brain”

  1. Terrific post Brian.
    Brings to mind immediately the recent books with titles like “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?”,

    or from the 80s
    “Management Tips From Ghengis Khan”.

  2. Ghengis Khan book was probably 90s. My boss had it on display in his office, perhaps as a reminder to himself to attempt modesty.

    “All power tends to corrupt….” Lord Acton. Along with the Roman cui bono? a very important observation.

  3. Ambi, there were echoes of those sayings, also “Power goes to your head”, which I considered using as the title.

    A truncated version of the article was printed in the Weekend AFR. Even though there are fewer journalists working there they still publish some good stuff.

  4. Of course there are different types of power, monetary and political being just two.
    I would guess the level of power/coercive force can differ in intensity and scale.
    Is having coercive power of 100% over 10% of people more detrimental than 10% coercive power over 100% of the people ?
    From the perspective of the power wielder of course, [the effect on the populous is another argument that I hope gets an airing some day.]

  5. Yes, Val, interesting indeed.

    Jumpy, it’s interpersonal power we are looking at here, I would think. Power over other people.

  6. President Trump says (or rather, writes) that he has unlimited power to pardon.

    Incorrect, I think.
    But let us wait to see what occurs…..

  7. Brian: There are many types of power. The one that got my attention was insanity power – the power that you get when people believe that you are crazy and dangerous. Regan was in power when i first heard of it and I saw him as a living example in the way he used it to beat the Russians and end the cold war.
    In the formal management stuff I taught belief was considered more important than actuality. The other key point was that the most effective form of power depended on the maturity of the group/individual you were dealing with. My recollection is that the list I used starting with the most effective for low maturity people first was was:
    Punishment power
    Reward power
    Position (formal) power
    Associative power (Believing I have powerful friends)
    Personal power (people skills)
    Expert power
    With mature groups who is leading changes depending on what expertise is import for the current discussion. Roles also move. For example, someone who is not at the center of the current argument may be the one who tries to bring a discussion to a conclusion.
    All these types of power can cripple your brain, particularly if you don’t understand the flow of power, start to believe you should always be in charge because you think that you are always the brightest person in the room or fail to acknowledge the power that others have at times. etc.
    Changing roles can also have an important effect. The family pointed out from time to time that my politics swung to the right when I was in operating management roles that involved dealing with the union brothers and swung left when I was doing technical jobs.
    In some of these past lives i might have been more inclined to agree with Mr J. Which just goes to show how power cripples your brain.

  8. John, on this one I think the article is inadequate in defining how the term ‘power’ is meant in the research, because I think the usage they follow is specific and constrained. I’m just not exactly sure what is meant.

    Here’s another review and I’m still not sure. I think he’s saying that the exercise of power in itself changes the way your brain works that are in a normal practical sense irreversible. I’d be more convinced if he had brain scans that showed powerful people had normally functioning brains before they became powerful. I can’t imagine how you would do that kind of research.

    There was an interesting interview with David Gillespie who has studied psychopaths. He says they have different brains from the start. They can act caring, but have emotions but no feelings. They have insight into others but no sympathy at all. he says they tend to gravitate to the top of any organisational tree, so the increased incidence of psychopaths at the top may be what Dacher Keltner is observing.

  9. Well put John.
    It’s extremely complex and we can only hope to see a faint silhouette.
    Each of the categories you mention occur in varying degrees in a single one on one relationship. Each party holds some but not all forms of power at a given time, and these can change almost totally over time.
    We haven’t even touched on when and why people abrogate forms of power, or even shun some of them at the outset.

    And then suddenly a single life event can turn everything on its head.

    The subject is fascinating yet futile I recon, something we Humans do well given the time to.

  10. Yes Jumpy: Power and leadership change over time and in response to other things that are happening in people’s lives. Part of what good management is about is recognizing these changes and making appropriate adjustments. It is also about recognizing that you will often get a better result if people own a decision even though the boss might have a better idea.
    One of the things I did learn was that delegating power when appropriate made it easier to get my own way when i really needed to. I also found that asking questions and letting people make decisions was often more effective than directing.

  11. On the empathy thing though, I’m just not seeing any level power to empathy ratio difference.

  12. So, Jumpy, you don’t see how power (regardless of the type of power), which creates a sense of superiority in the beholder, has an impact on empathy? You obviously haven’t played monopoly recently.

    Amongst the many mechanisms at play here the longer term effects are how our creeping reward systems affect us. Over time sustained reward activity in any one area creates indifference through repeated activity and is installed permanently in our brains as white matter connections which in turn affects our automatic reactions.

    I would expect that there would be a healthy body of corroborative evidence available from a study of racial prejudice to African Americans in US Southern States.

  13. Jumpy, our brains change to support and continue our habits. It gets grooved in so “it becomes second nature” is more than a saying.

  14. Actually footy is a good example.
    Winning culture v losing culture.
    The Broncos are the most successful team in the NRL so envy creates spite making them the most hated amongst non-Bronco fans.
    Confidence is seen as arrogance, success must be had undeservedly, the Referees are biased toward them, they must be cheating…..

    Envy is very corrosive to logical thought.

  15. I would expect that there would be a healthy body of corroborative evidence available illustrating this phenomenon …..

  16. Empathy can be a help or a hindrance. For example, empathy may help people understand what effect various decisions will have on people, how those decisions may emotionally affect the people the decisions are being made about. The result can be better, more acceptable decisions.
    On the downside too much empathy may make to too hard to make decisions, simply make a people handling job too stressful or be overly influenced by the short term implications of decisions that need to be made.

  17. Very few people have no empathy.
    Just because one happens to feel it for those I don’t doesn’t mean there is none.
    Anyone that says they super empathise with everyone and everything is either lying or an emotionally dysfunctional mess.

    Everyone has selfishness as the core emotional function.

  18. GOJ: you said:

    Everyone has selfishness as the core emotional function.

    I realize that this is your world view and explains many of the things you say on this blog.
    You view may be compatible with the empathy which is about understanding people to improve your chances of getting more out of people and winning contests.
    On the other hand the empathy that helps us to be more sympathetic to people and their needs is contrary to your world view.

  19. Everyone has selfishness as the core emotional function.

    Jumpy, I’m currently reading Andrew Gamble’s An introduction to modern social and political thought. It was written way back in 1981, and I’m finding it brilliant.

    What you are saying is straight out of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century.

    It’s the idea that we have a pre-social individual being that we bring to an essentially hostile world. You really are not in a good place.

  20. John, BilB, Jumpy and everyone, my Australian Oxford dictionary defines ’empathy’ as:

    n. Psychol. the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.

    Most people do this with sympathy and/or compassion, so it is often taken to mean that those things are involved as well.

    Obviously people don’t consult the dictionary before they use words, but I think the dictionary meaning makes useful distinctions. However, when we use words like ’empathy’ in common discourse, we can’t expect that everyone will understand it the same way. So you’d expect psychologists and such to normally use the default meaning in psychological technical jargon as per above.

    We haven’t seen the actual research, but the article says that Keltner:

    found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.

    He’s talking about brain imaging scans there, and you’d have to think he was talking about empathy as per the dictionary definition above. What is not clear is how he identified powerful people.

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